by Ian Brand

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

VISITING the excellent Otley Farmers’ market last month, I saw a stall selling chestnuts. I had to buy some. Chestnuts are the fruit of the Sweet Chestnut, which is one of my favourite trees, but more importantly on this occasion I was immediately transported back to my childhood.

Brought up in London, a winter treat would be to go up to “Town” and see the Christmas lights along Oxford Street. However, for me, the highlight was sharing a bag of roasted chestnuts with my brother. There seemed to be, on every street corner, someone standing next to a brazier selling these delicious winter delicacies.

On returning home from Otley, I was keen to sample my purchases. Using a sharp knife I cut a cross into the skin of each nut and put them into a hot oven to roast for 30 minutes. Then I indulgently peel away the harder outer skin and the pithy inner skin to get to the sweet kernel and dip it in a little salt. I am in heaven, aged ten again!

We have the Romans to thank for the Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa), brought to these islands to help feed their Legionnaires, along with many other plants from the welcome Walnut to the gardeners’ enemy; Ground Elder.

Sweet Chestnut is a member of the Beech family (Fagaceae), and unrelated to its poisonous namesake the Horse Chestnut. This most attractive and long-lived of trees is easily identified by its saw-toothed glossy green leaves and deeply fissured bark, which often appears to spiral helically around the trunk.

Unlike its other family members, Beech and Oak, the Sweet Chestnut is insect not wind-pollinated. Long creamy-white catkin inflorescences appear in July, producing a pungent, insect-attracting aroma. Catkins hold the flowers of both sexes, with male flowers in the upper part and a few female flowers in the lower portion. The female flowers are often difficult to see due to the surrounding green bracts. It is these green bracts which develop into spiny husks (called cupules), which protect the fruit or nut from hungry rodents.

Back to the fireside; as I eat the chestnuts, I am reminded that I am actually eating the swollen primitive seed-leaves (the cotyledons). These are the first leaves to appear above ground upon germination, before the more recognisable leaves develop, and they are darn tasty cotyledons too!

(Otley Farmers’ Market is on the last Sunday of every month 9am - 1pm).